Gandhi Jayanti is an occasion to reflect on what we can learn from Gandhiji. Everyone’s life teaches us both what to do and what not to do. The ideals that Gandhiji set are an inspiration for generations – a sense of sacrifice, acceptance for everyone, an unbroken faith in satsang and dedication to the higher cause of the country and the welfare of people. But there were aspects of his life that teach us what not to do as well.
My teacher, Pt. Sudhakar Chaturvedi, who is still alive at 118 years stayed with Gandhiji for a long time. Bangalori, as Gandhiji would call him since he hailed from Bangalore, used to teach him the Bhagavad Gita. They were together on the day Kasturba passed away in Yerawada Jail. Watching her in the throes of death, Gandhiji said, “Bangalori, your Bapu has to face the test of fire (agni-pariksha) today.” Panditji saw tears in Bapu’s eyes for the first time. As he read the second chapter of the Gita for Kasturba, she breathed her last. Gandhiji remarked, “I realize that I gave her a lot of pain and no happiness.” Kasturba supported him in his mission till the end. Perhaps he would not have been so remorseful had he honored and agreed to some of her wishes once in a while.
Gandhiji was also deeply pained when his son converted to another religion. He spoke a lot against conversion and admitted his regret that he could not give his children an education of values and respect for their own religion. He came to be regarded as the Father of the Nation but could not be a good father to his own sons. While aspiring to bring freedom to an entire country, he gave none to his own wife. Due to his rigidity, Gandhiji put his family through a lot of distress and his own children rebelled against him. Approaching every aspect of life with a fixed attitude is not practical. One needs to have different yardsticks for dealing with different people and situations.
During the partition, Gandhiji received news of riots, but refused to believe such violence was going on there. To take stock of the situation, he sent Bangalori who was attacked no less than seven times with knives. On one occasion, he was captured and buried in sand up to the neck. The mullah was to come and strike him with the first stone before the mob finished him. Somehow the army reached on time and he was able to escape. When he shared his experience showing his wounds, Gandhiji accused him, “You are saying all this because you are a Hindu yourself. My Muslim brothers can never do anything like this.” Bangalori was taken aback on being suspected and left Gandhiji in dismay. The Mahatma was assassinated three days later. Panditji used to tell me, “I left that old man in the last three days of his life”, a fact that always pained him.
My grandfather also spent twenty years with Gandhiji in Sevashram. One of the rules observed there was to have bitter neem chutney with everything, even sweets like kheer. On one hand, such an austere practice, though strange, can help people overcome their small attachments like taste etc. and is good for a sannyasi, but it is undue to force everyone, including children, to follow it.
Gandhiji was quite uncompromising about his opinions often compelling everyone to accept his verdict. Considering everyone’s viewpoint and weighing the pros and cons of a situation did not feature in his style of functioning. On several occasions, he would unreasonably go on a fast to put pressure and prevail over others. When the issue of who the first Prime Minister of India was going to be was put to vote in the Congress, all the votes favoured Sardar Patel, except one. Disregarding this outcome, Mahatma Gandhi declared that Nehru would be Prime Minister. The man who laid the foundation of our democracy was very undemocratic in his ways.
Mahatma Gandhi had an indelible impact on the world. He remained committed to non-violence at a time when world wars were raging and rose to command a nation while living as a renunciant. His life will remain a lesson for all in more ways than one.